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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 02 2013

Educational Hypotheses (and a pathetic chart)

I’ve been trying for a while now to draw out my thoughts on education reform in a relatively clear way. However, when I think about any subject, I like to think not just in terms of how things are, but rather how they are changing. So, what follows is a hypothesis (or really a series of hypotheses), founded upon theory and anecdotal evidence alone, that I will seek to validate, disprove, and build on in my upcoming academic career.

Unfortunately, when trying to map out how a complex system like education is changing, things can get ugly. Combine that with my lack of all graphing/drawing skills, and you have the chart below.

On the Y axis I am measuring the order of thinking, primarily the percent of the classroom time when students are engaging in thinking that is higher on the blooms scale (creating, evaluating, etc.). Schools or classrooms with “low order thinking” would therefore tend to spend most instructional time focused on remembering, memorizing, and understanding. This is, of course, all relative, since no school can or should be entirely composed of high or low order thinking. But a high order thinking school will spend more of the day on project/experience-based or exploratory learning, and a lower order thinking school will spend more time in the I/we/you format, which is inherently lower order, since you are learning by remembering or applying steps modeled for you.

On the X axis I am measured how tightly coupled a school is. Coupling is a technical term in organizational theory that refers essentially to how easily it is for one person in the organization to influence another (e.g. a principal deciding what a teacher will teach). Schools are notoriously loosely coupled compared to other organizations, due both to the layout of schools into atomized classrooms and the fact that teachers value the authenticity of their interactions with students. A tightly coupled school therefore is more likely to have all teachers utilizing similar pedagogical/management techniques, following similar schedules, using similar curricula, etc.

Finally, using color (and a silly equal and unequal sign), I am categorizing schools as either having or not-having a bought-in staff. Ideally this too would be a spectrum, but I don’t know how to make a 3D graph…Either way, whether you are in a tightly or loosely coupled school, if your principal or administrator asks you to do something, you can respond in two ways. If you believe in their intentions and expertise, you will probably try to implement that suggestion as best you can. If you don’t, then you will most likely superficially do it while they are looking and then go back to doing your own thing. Because of the very nature of schooling (as loosely coupled), I don’t think you can have an extremely tightly coupled school without some staff buy-in (unless teachers are surveilled at all times…), but you can certainly have autonomous teachers with or without buy-in to the organization as a whole, as well as teachers on a short leash who do and do not buy into their organizations.

With that in mind, here is the chart, which again, is a hypothesis based on pure speculation:

 

Cross-Sectional Hypotheses:

1. Public schools tend to be more loosely coupled than charter schools. This is primarily because unions have fought (rightly or wrongly) to preserve this characteristic, and principals are less likely to micro-manage teachers since it will be harder to fire them if they are noncompliant.

2. The majority of successful public schools are relatively (but not extremely) aligned around higher-order thinking. I believe successful schools have sizable amount of higher order thinking because they tend to hire experienced, well trained, teachers, who have been taught how to do this well and most likely believe in the benefits of this kind of instruction. I don’t think your typical, loosely coupled, public school will have an extreme amount of higher order thinking because there will be variance among teachers and without continual feedback (not provided in loosely coupled schools) some are likely not capable of hitting higher order instruction as frequently.

3. To be successful, “No excuses” charter schools require more staff buy-in. This allows for the tight coupling, which then helps to build higher order thinking.

4. You will not find a tightly coupled school that is capable of aligning around extremely high-order thinking. My thinking here is that consistent higher-order instruction requires professional autonomy on the part of teachers, which can’t exist in a very tightly coupled organization. I believe that having a loosely coupled school that consistently hits higher order thinking skills requires that teaching becomes more of a profession, wherein teachers are more consistently receiving high-quality training and mentoring from schools of education and exiting the profession if they cannot get accepted into, pass, and thrive after such programs. Such a path to school improvement would require totally rethinking our teacher education system.

Longitudinal Hypotheses:

1. As schools respond to the political or market-based incentives that are the foundation of most reform schemes (standardized testing, competition to attract students), they will tend to become more tightly coupled, promote lower-order thinking skills, and achieve less staff buy-in. Essentially, principals and superintendents will tend to respond to pressure by striving for greater control of classroom instruction, to improve instruction, but perhaps more importantly, to seem proactive in the quest to improve instruction. This could mean more interim assessments, observations from administrators, paperwork (evidencing compliance), heavily scripted curricula and bringing in outside consultants or programs. These attempts at making schools more tightly coupled will often result in alienating teachers and lowering the quality, authenticity, and rigor of instruction, which will drive good teachers away, bring in more new teachers (oh hey TFA!), who will require further intervention. And so the cycle will continue.

2. To  bypass this likely and scary outcome, there are two general routes. (1) Find ways of improving school organizational capacity so that they respond to these incentives by more successfully modeling the successful charter schools that are capable of maintaing teacher buy-in and rigor. Doing this systemically will be near impossible, but I am confident that more research on school organization and a general shift in attitude towards school leaders, rather than teachers, being responsible for very poor outcomes could help in this process. (2) Try to turn teaching into a profession where teachers are highly trained/skilled/well-selected, and have the professional autonomy to utilize their knowledge base, so long as it fits with current research-based best practices, to improve student outcomes as they see best. This means placing the onus of responsibility for teacher improvement on co-teachers, schools of education, and professional networks rather than school administration, as well as getting schools of education to produce research that is accessible, useful, and relevant to perfecting and growing a knowledge base for teachers. See Ted Purinton’s “Six Degrees of School Improvement” for more on this avenue of reform. The most optimistic reading of this fairly depressing (in my view) post is that both of these routes could be complimentary (Schools of ed learn from the examples of Uncommon/Relay, Uncommon/Relay learns that theory/a knowledge base is important for teacher preparation, the most successful charter schools and public schools end up being the ones that treat teachers as professionals, schools in the process of transformation emulate these new examples, etc.). I hope that’s true.

I’d love anyone’s thoughts, or for teachers to place their school on my chart. Mine is certainly in that bottom left corner, boxed in red.

One Response

  1. SCteacher

    OK…barely above the x axis on higher-order thinking…a mix of tight and loose coupling (not a well-oiled machine by any means)…rated very successful by state measures…traditional public school…low income, rural..We would be in the upper right quadrant this year, but next year we could drop to lower right.

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